When I was invited to give this chapel talk, I wondered what I could possibly say that would be interesting and relevant to a school audience almost sixty years after my graduation. So much has changed here. Fortunately, some very important things have not changed, and I realized that I am among the dwindling number of graduates with the requisite antiquity to help make sure they aren’t overlooked or taken for granted. I call them Groton’s constants—things about the school that have been continuous and constant not only since when I was here, but all of the way back to its founding in 1884. I am going to talk briefly about both: some of the changes that have occurred since my day and four constants that have followed me all though my life.
The fact that the school’s birthday is being celebrated today is a helpful coincidence, because birthdays are a time for different generations of a family to communicate about shared places and experiences. Therefore, please think of this talk as a message to you, the Forms of 2018 through 2022, from my form, the Form of 1959, with some thoughts about why you are here and what I hope you will take away from here when you graduate.
My first school birthday was on October 15, 1955—sixty-two years ago, when I was fourteen and the school was seventy-one. I hesitate to admit that at my present age, I am older now than the school was then.
On that day in 1955, Groton was a school of two hundred boys, with a faculty of thirty-five men. A lot of other things were also very different. Here are just a few examples:
We slept in cubicles instead of the bedroom/studies that most of you occupy. Cubicles were spaces with varnished wood walls, a steel-framed bed, a chair, a wall mirror, hooks for hanging jackets and pants, and a bureau for storing all other clothing. Nothing else was permitted.
The cubicles were in dorms, all but one of which were located on what now are the second floors of Brooks House and Hundred House. Most dorms were presided over by bachelor masters, whose own living quarters were integral or immediately contiguous. Between twenty and thirty boys resided in each dormitory.
Then there was the dress code. Despite what you may think looking at me, I haven’t dressed up for this occasion. What you see me wearing now is what I was required to wear as a student throughout the day: coat and tie, grey flannel or khaki trousers, and polished brown leather shoes. On Sundays, dark suits and polished black shoes replaced this combination. Incidentally, the faculty observed the same dress code.
Our desks for studying were in either school rooms or studies. Studies were small rooms with a desk, a chair, and sometimes a built-in sofa, located beneath the dormitories in long hallways on the first floors of Hundred House and Brooks House in space that is now part of various dorms. First and Second Formers studied in the Hundred House Schoolroom, which was located near the present Hundred House Reading Room. Third Formers studied in the Brooks House Schoolroom, which was located in the corner of the building nearest the Chapel, which now is part of Riley’s Dorm. Upper Schoolers (Fourth Form up) studied in their studies—a term that I use to this day to describe an important room in our home—over the objections of my wife, who thinks it should be called an office.
Breakfast was cafeteria style, but lunch and dinner were sit-down meals in what now is the Hundred House Reading Room. We sat by form in assigned seats at long tables, with a master at each end and others in the middle. All boys took turns as waiters, bringing the food from the kitchen and doing the clean-up. Waiters wore white jackets, eating their meals hurriedly before everyone else arrived.
That’s just a glimpse at how my form and I lived in pre-history. It only scratches the surface. If you are already feeling an enormous sense of relief that you are here today rather than then, I understand. The conditions unquestionably were Spartan, but they were survivable and actually beneficial. My form and I survived and benefited together, and we forged close ties doing it.
Now for what hasn’t changed: Groton’s constants.
The first is a commitment to excellence. Schools such as Groton are often called “elite,” “exclusive,” “expensive,” or some such word. These terms inevitably appear in news media reports following an unfortunate event. They miss the point entirely. If an e-word must be utilized, it should be “excellence,” because excellence is what Groton strives for and stands for. High personal standards are an integral part of it. Here, you are exposed to this commitment throughout every day, in everything you do. You won’t be penalized for failing to achieve it, but the faculty won’t let you not try.
Among other things, excellence at any institution of learning translates into the opportunity to acquire a superior education. But you have to remember always that the purpose of this education is not to make you comfortable, or complacent, but to learn how to think and how to keep on learning throughout life. And if you acquire this benefit, you need to be humble about it and never flaunt it, because in the world ahead of you it won’t be what you have that counts, but what you do with what you have. Take full advantage of this opportunity.
Close friendships with members of my form are my second Groton. You may not realize it now, but lifelong relationships are started here, even with members of your form with whom you may not think you have very much in common now. The intense shared experience of this place will transcend personal differences to a degree that will surprise you. Indeed, my closest friends are members of my form. The Boston luncheon last month that the headmaster mentioned illustrates this bond. It is not too soon for you to start nurturing similar bonds.
My third constant relates to the second and, like it, is a byproduct of the school’s small size: an unusually close relationship between students and faculty. From my description of the school’s daily routine, you know that members of the faculty were involved in every aspect of my form’s life here and knew what we were doing every minute of our waking hours. Despite this fact, perhaps because of it, lifelong friendships between many of our teachers and us also started here.
I am acquainted with only a few members of the present faculty, but, like the faculty of my day, I know that they are exceptionally qualified academically. However, also like the faculty of my day, they are here to be educators rather than academics. They are here to do what they choose to do with their own lives. Never again will you be surrounded by so many who are so committed to your intellectual and personal growth, so ready to rescue you when you stumble, so encouraging when you need it, so admonishing when you deserve it. Don’t resist this involvement.
My fourth constant is the concept of service. Compared to any other educational institution that I know of, it is distinctive to Groton. It is expressed in the school’s motto: cui servire est regnare. I’ve never been completely sure of the proper English translation for those four Latin words, but I know what they mean.
Service has been in the school’s DNA since its founding. For most graduates, it becomes a life force. Theodore Roosevelt was born too early to be able to attend Groton, but he sent his sons here, including while he was president. They were in the Forms of 1906, 1908, and 1909. When he visited them, he would speak on all manner of subjects, because he loved to talk. Transcripts and descriptions of these talks document that the theme of service was already deeply implanted at Groton.
The same was true of his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, Form of 1900, who also sent his sons here. They were in the Forms of 1926, 1928, 1933, and 1934. Your headmaster has given me a transcript from the school’s archives of FDR’s Prize Day talk in June 1931, when he was governor of the state of New York and just seventeen months away from being elected president of the United States. I learned yesterday that this speech is going be published in the next issue of the Quarterly. I am delighted with that news, because this document is an historian’s treasure trove that deserves far more attention than it has been given. Be sure to read it when it comes out. About service, FDR had this to say:
“We have all heard a great deal at school—I suppose you hear it still, the way we did—about service. There are some boys in the school who get a little tired of this preaching about service and come to regard it as some kind of a duty, as something that has to be done, an obligation. I think most boys who graduate from this school look on service perhaps a little bit more from the point of view of privilege—as something that we as Americans have a right to take part in.”
Like FDR’s form, my form heard about service all of the time—in Chapel sermons, in class, in dorm and dining room discussions. It was in the air, in the very walls of the school—literally, like the names carved in the wood panels on the Schoolroom and Schoolhouse hallway walls that you walk by every day listing all graduates, many of whom achieved great distinction in their lives by embodying a sense of worthwhile purpose that was imparted to them here and applying it for the benefit of something larger than themselves.
I said earlier that the school’s motto becomes a life force. I could give you many examples, but here’s one that is particularly meaningful to me. About ten years ago, a member of my form was dying of cancer, and I visited him in his home during his final weeks. When I arrived at the house for these visits, his wife and children would depart for a few hours, because they needed a break from the stress of caregiving. So he and I were left alone to talk about anything we wanted to. (Incidentally, he was married in this Chapel at a small family service in 1970.) In one of our conversations, he speculated about what he would have said in a chapel talk, had he ever been invited to give one. The following words are recorded in a letter written to our form after his death. It was published in the February 2008 edition of the Quarterly. Of his hypothetical chapel talk, he said:
“You will forget everything that I say here today. However, you will always remember that you were here and, hopefully, you will retain a small, flickering glimmer of the truth that life involves more than mere service to your own personal appetites and instead should lead to a meaningful adult life of service to those less fortunate.”
For him, “service to those less fortunate” meant serving as a lawyer—often for no fee—for people of limited education, skill, and means living around him in West Haven, Connecticut, a small city with a diverse population and a declining industrial job base.
I didn’t tell him this at the time, but I thought his reference to “service to those less fortunate” was a pretty tall order, because to my simple mind those words describe a very large group of people—like just about everyone else on this planet. In my own life, I have interpreted service more modestly. To me, it has meant trying to have a beneficial impact on other people and trying to make a difference in their lives by applying some of the values encountered here, such as being generous and having generosity of spirit; knowing the difference between right and wrong; exhibiting moral courage; being willing to stand up and be counted when others hesitate, or run, or hide; and having a sense of personal responsibility.
These values hopefully start with your parents, but here they are drilled into your very bones. They will guide you in any task you may undertake in your lives, especially where you are responsible for the welfare and well-being of other people.
I close with a topical comment about something that nowadays all of us must worry about whenever we read or watch the news. This comment is totally nonpartisan. I often think about the quality of political leadership at all levels of government in this country that I have witnessed during most of my adult lifetime, and I ask myself how different things might have been, or could be, if more of the people who occupy high political office, like the president and vice president, members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, governors of states, members of state legislatures—you name it—if these people had been exposed even a little bit during their formative years to the influences that everyone who attends or works at Groton School experiences daily.
If only they had not missed out on Groton’s constants.
A final note. In FDR’s 1931 Prize Day address, he also describes a highlight of his student days that will be relevant for all of you very soon, especially the new Third Formers who identified themselves earlier—a certain football game that occurred when he himself was a new Third Former in the fall of 1896, 121 years ago next month. Of this game, he says:
“And then I remember what I think to me was the thrill that comes once in a lifetime: my first St. Mark’s game, right here in school, down where the old Chapel was. And I remember two things about that game: Groton 46, St. Mark’s 0.”
I think we all know how FDR would conclude his talk if he were here today instead of me. He would say very simply: Beat St. Mark’s.